The Stuffed Owl – Written by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee

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Reviewed by Mary McConville


“The Stuffed Owl” could just as well be called “The Golden Turkey”. This book is an enjoyable anthology of bad verse put together by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee. Some contributions come from people who should have known better. Even established wordsmiths like John Dryden and Oliver Goldsmith had their bad days too, This book is namedowl after a poem by William Wordsworth about the imaginary adventures of a stuffed owl that consoled the tedious hours endured by the bedridden Miss Jewsbury.

Some of these poets were famous (or infamous) for their terrible work. Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton wrote the lines that are often misquoted as “It was a dark and stormy night.” This has given rise to a great many parodies and an on-line competition to write deliberately bad poetry and prose. This is harder than it looks.

Eliza Cook (the self titled “poet-one”) was a consistently bad writer who nevertheless had a moderate amount of talent. Unfortunately this was paired with a tin ear.  My favourite lines from her large body of work are

“She dances out to the ding dong bell

She laughs with raving glee

And death endeth the dream with a requiem scream

Tis a wild night at sea.”

Try reciting that with rising hysteria, but go deadpan on the last line.

Edgar Allan Poe  was weird to start with. He is now considered to have been genuinely mad. He said “I dwelt alone, in a world of moan.” Man, he wallowed in it, with his dead brides, his ravens and his disintegrating castles.

We can switch over to another style of bad poetry with Ambrose Phillips, the original “Namby Pamby”, who wrote a mawkish ode to young Margaret, the infant daughter of his friend, Daniel Pulteney, Esquire.

“Dimply damsel, sweetly smiling,

All caressing, none beguiling,

Bud of beauty, fairly blowing,

Every charm to nature owing,”

Sometimes the problem is the poet. At other times it’s  the subject. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of the better known Charles) wrote a poem on the love life of truffles. They haven’t any. He also waxed lyrical about nitrous oxide. Who said that science and art can’t be mixed?

Food was and still is a popular subject. John Bidlake extolled the true-hearted cabbage, the sluggard carrot, the crippled pea and the nodding onion. Add these idiosyncratic vegetables to bacon “a stubborn aliment” and make a savoury stew. Finish off your rustic meal with some “ tenacious paste of solid milk” (cheese). If this is too much for your delicate mind (and stomach) you will want to avoid the “floods of rancid bile.” I know the feeling.

Food is a consistently interesting subject but how do you liven up the subject of mosquitoes and sand flies. Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote a whole poem on insect affection.

“And every insect dwelt secure

Where little Eva played.;”

Hey, don’t forget the Aerogard.

The compilers do make a distinction between good bad poetry and bad bad poetry. Good bad poetry has a sort of grandeur and an energy that impresses even it the actual poetry doesn’t. Bad bad poetry is just dull.

“And I was asked and authorised to go

To seek the firm of Clutterbuck & Co.”

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